Munson-Hicks Party Supplies is a family business rumored to keep sporadic hours on the weedy outskirts of the Twin Cities and a musical collaboration between John Munson, who does most of the singing, and Dylan Hicks, who writes the songs. They make groovily bookish music—English majors might dig it, but non-English speakers won’t be bored—inspired by far-flung alliances between interpretative singers and less spotlit writers. Munson, best known as a founding member of Trip Shakespeare, Semisonic, and the New Standards, is the group’s bassist as well as its principal singer; Hicks, who’s also a novelist, plays piano. They’re joined by the ingenious jazz-rooted guitarist Zacc Harris and the deeply pocketed drummer Richard Medek. On the group’s self-titled debut album, due out September 4, the core four-piece welcomes enough guests to field a softball team, including singers Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor, who’ve been widely heard with Neko Case, Mavis Staples, and the Decemberists.
The project was first broached during a session for Hicks’s Munson-produced 2017 album, Ad Out. Delighted by Munson’s backing vocals, Hicks suggested they make an album of Munson singing Hicks’s songs. They started ambitiously rattling off procedural models: Nilsson Sings Newman, the album of Harry Nilsson singing Randy Newman songs with Newman on piano; Waylon Jennings’s Honky Tonk Heroes, the outlaw touchstone mainly written by Billy Joe Shaver; Tempting, which has Jenny Toomey singing songs by (Hicks’s friend) Franklin Bruno; and, if you let in a stretcher, Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene, a collection of songs written, in some fanciful way, by a secondary character from Hicks’s first novel.
First, though, Munson and Hicks drafted a musical, Princess Pam, centered on a rebellious heir apparent to the British throne who flees the palace, goes incognito, and forms a rock band in Minneapolis. Staging musical theater requires a lot of—how to put it?—money, so while the pair waited for investors to queue up, they turned the Munson Sings Hicks idea into a band, and started by recasting some of Hicks’s more autonomous Pam songs. Three of the songs from Munson-Hicks Party Supplies derive from the musical: “Only Smoke,” a reflective lyric brilliantly read by Munson; “Write It on the Water,” a mirror-balled breakup song; and “Damascus,” a midtempo conversion blues for the indecisive.
Several of the remaining songs respond to the Trump era, such as the hypnotic “Sawtooth” and the inflamed “Pennies on My Eyes,” which doubles down on the “yacht rock” influences detected on Ad Out. “The Cliff Don’t Hear the Echo” is a country toe-tapper with Hicks singing lead and Munson’s reverberant backups imagining the Grandsons of the Pioneers. The lyrics are witty and literate—“Somewhere my pace began to slow,” admits one narrator, “on the road from Judy Blume to Michel Foucault”—but Munson and Hicks are equally devoted to melody, harmony, and groove, and the band is on fire. Munson again proves to be an expressive and inventive singer, and his resonant baritone is complemented and contrasted by Hicks’s reedier but similarly inviting voice.